Guest Post: Lindsey McDivitt on Positive Images of Aging

By Lindsey McDivitt
of A is for Aging, B is for Books
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Grumpy and frumpy, witchy and weary, frail and forgetful—none of us expects to be that kind of older person, and in reality this does not often describe normal aging.

But negative stereotypes of age, such as older characters in decline and needing help from a child, are too often the norm in books for kids.

In actual fact, late life is generally a time of great satisfaction.

Teaching empathy is important, but the images of aging we show children in books are of vital significance—to them and us. Ageism is evident in pre-schoolers. Even children who admire their own grandparents speak negatively about growing old and about older people.

Research also tells us that taking in negative stereotypes shapes us and even shortens our lives. We will become what we think as we get older. We all need and deserve a positive vision of our future.

Books that share positive messages about aging benefit both kids and adults, and they more accurately represent our diverse world of young and old.

At some point in our lives the conversation around birthdays will shift, from happy anticipation to dread. Why is that?

Ageism—pure and simple. Just like racism, ageism steals away recognition of our abilities, strengths and individuality.

In the words of Rosemarie Jarski, “We will all get older, so ageism is like turkeys voting for Christmas.”

We plan for a long life, so why is it so hard to recognize we stereotype older adults?

You can hardly blame us—our society surrounds us with words and images worshipping youth. But getting old is not a failure to remain young and it should be celebrated as the triumph of strength and survivorship it is.

What can we do to balance other media and add more realistic and positive images of aging to books for young people? As writers and illustrators let’s challenge ourselves to:

Lindsey’s assistant
  • Provide older role models by creating interesting, complex characters and avoiding one-dimensional stereotypes such as poor, sick and sad. And let’s remember—dementia is not a part of normal aging.
  • Share the knowledge and strength older adults have acquired because of their age and experience. See My Teacher by James Ransome (Dial, 2012).
  • Highlight creativity and lifelong growth. Include a wide range of abilities and interests. See It Jes’ Happened: When Bill Traylor Started to Draw by Don Tate, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie (Lee & Low, 2012). 
  • Normalize aging and changing by showing it is a lifelong process. See Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney (Viking, 1982).
  • Show satisfaction with late life—research tells us people grow happier as they age.
  • Avoid the freaky and foolish in both text and images, and choose our words carefully. “Old” is not a bad word and should not be used as such in any of our writing.
  • Include older characters that are working, volunteering, or making a difference in the world. Highlight the strengths often masked by an aging body. See Grandmama’s Pride by Becky Birtha, illustrated by Colin Bootman (Whitman, 2005).
    Show what people of all ages have in common.
  • Share the positives of intergenerational relationships, including those outside the family. See Mrs. Katz and Tush by Patricia Polacco (Doubleday, 2009).

Let’s try visualizing who we want to be as we grow older—both words and pictures carry powerful images.

And lastly, in the interest of full disclosure—the grandmother in my latest manuscript? She knits. But that’s not all she does…

Cynsational Notes

Visit Lindsey’s Blog, A is for Aging, B is for Books, and like A is for Aging on facebook.

Cover Reveal & Author Interview: Dori Hillestad Butler on Writing Chapter Books & The Haunted Library

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Cheers to your upcoming series, The Haunted Library (Grosset & Dunlap, 2014)! Could you tell us about it?

It’s a chapter book mystery series, just like my Buddy Files series (Albert Whitman). But instead of a canine protagonist, my main character Kaz is a ghost.

He’s spent his whole life (and he is “alive”…this is a chapter book series so my ghosts aren’t dead people, they’re simply transparent people with superpowers) living with his ghost family in an old, abandoned schoolhouse.

But when the “solids” come and tear down the schoolhouse, Kaz and his family are separated as they blow away in the wind. Kaz ends up in a city library, where he meets a solid girl named Claire. Claire can see Kaz when he’s not “glowing.” She can hear Kaz when he’s not “wailing.” No one knows why.

Kaz and Claire form a detective agency to solve ghostly mysteries and help Kaz find his family.

What are the challenges of writing chapter books? How about writing a chapter book series?

interior illustration

I think one of the main challenges to writing a chapter book is first understanding what a chapter book is.

I hear a lot of parents say, “my child is reading chapter books.”

What do they mean when they say that? Do they mean their kids are reading Frog and Toad? Yes, Frog and Toad has chapters, but it’s an easy reader. Are they reading A Wrinkle in Time? That’s a middle grade novel. Or are they reading The Magic Tree House? Those are chapter books!

You can’t go by the age of the child…kids learn to read at different ages. Though, if pressed, I would say most chapter book readers are between ages 7 and 10. They’re able to read and comprehend easy readers, but they maybe don’t have the stamina to stick with a middle grade novel yet.

Chapter books tend to have spot illustrations, large type, lots of write space. Chapters are short. So are paragraphs. Sentences tend to be simple, but not too simple. Main characters are spunky and fun, and plots are fast-paced with lots of action. You don’t see a lot of explanation and description in chapter books. Everything moves along at a good clip.

As for chapter book series, writing a chapter book series really isn’t any different from writing any other series. For me, the biggest challenge to writing a series is I’m limited by what I’ve already written. I often get three books in and wish I’d established some key element to the series back in book one. But it’s usually too late to go back and change book one. That can be frustrating.

What advice would you give to writers interested in creating a chapter book series of their own?

First, read some chapter book series. I don’t think you can write one if you’ve never read one or if you haven’t read one since you were a kid.

Read a bunch of them. Get a feel for chapter book characters, plot, and pacing. Get a feel for how series are put together. That will help you as you craft your own series.

Keep in mind that each book in a series should be a stand-alone story, but it should also advance the series arc. Create a series character and/or concept that’s interesting enough to follow through multiple books. Readers like series because they connect with a character and want to follow that character into other adventures. Give yourself enough to work with.

author portrait
illustrator portrait

What are your thoughts on the cover art? How does it draw readers into your series?

I love the cover art! I’m usually pretty happy with the covers of my books, but these may be the best covers of any of my books. I think Aurore really captured the personalities of the ghosts and she makes the books look fun.

I’d pick these books up if they weren’t already mine.

Guest Post & Giveaway: Kristi Valiant on Marrying Art to Text in Picture Books

Check out the Penguin Cha-Cha Storytime Kit!

By Kristi Valiant
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Look through your shelves of picture books (does everyone love picture books enough to own shelves of them?). Do you notice any differences between the books that were written and illustrated by the same person versus the books that were written by one person and illustrated by another?

My first picture book as both author and illustrator, Penguin Cha-Cha, was published recently by Random House. I loved illustrating my own story, but I also love illustrating other authors’ books.

I’ve illustrated a handful of those, including the upcoming Pretty Minnie in Paris, written by Danielle Steel, about a teacup Chihuahua in the fashion world of Paris – Oh la la!

I approach illustrating someone else’s manuscript differently than when I illustrate my own.

When I’m given a manuscript to illustrate, much of the storyline is already there and can’t be changed. I do have some creative freedom in bringing my half to the book, and to promote that, the publisher usually keeps the author and illustrator away from each other.

I can deepen the story by adding elements, and sometimes even characters, to the illustrations that aren’t mentioned in the text. For example, in the picture book, Cora Cooks Pancit (Shen’s), I added in a dog that wasn’t in the text and used him to echo the main character’s feelings with a problem of his own – all through the illustrations.

But even though I can deepen the story and be creative through the illustrations, the fact remains that the text was written before the illustrations, and I can’t change the text.

When I wrote and illustrated Penguin Cha-Cha, the visuals came first and the illustrations influenced the writing of the text in a major way.

Penguin Cha-Cha started as a portfolio illustration. The great thing about portfolio pieces is that you can draw anything you fancy. I was in a Latin-and-swing dance group and I liked penguins, so I drew dancing penguins.

Art directors and editors kept asking if I had a story to go with the illustration. They could see just by looking at the dancing penguins that I had fun drawing them.

When that joy shines through an illustration, it’s time to start thinking about making a book.

So I began writing stories about dancing penguins. Learning the craft of writing picture books, of course, took time and many tries.

I’m still learning, but what worked the best for me was to envision my dancing penguins story in my head as a sort of animation and pick out the key parts that forwarded the story and were the most visually interesting to draw as spreads for the book. Then I added in just the words necessary.

My editor had me add in a bit more text after the dummy was acquired, but mostly we stuck with the original dummy.

Many of us author-illustrators tend to start as illustrators and therefore are more visual than wordy. We can show part of the storyline in the illustrations, so perhaps not as much text is needed.

Check out the picture books on your own shelf and see if you can tell if the same person wrote and illustrated them.

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